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Paul Allen gives $40 million to UW computer science; regents name school after b
Source: Katherine Long

Armed with a T-shirt cannon, Paul Allen joins with regents and officials Thursday at the University of Washington in celebrating the creation of the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science and Engineering. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

He’s the co-founder of Microsoft, the owner of the Seahawks, a philanthropist who has given millions toward brain science, cell science and artificial-intelligence research, and the founder of a museum devoted to pop culture and science fiction.

On Thursday, the Seattle billionaire announced he is donating $40 million to the University of Washington’s computer-science efforts, and Microsoft kicked in another $10 million in Allen’s honor, giving the new school a $50 million endowment.

In turn, the UW Board of Regents on Thursday elevated the computer-science department to the status of a school and named it the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science & Engineering after the Seattle billionaire.

“It’s a game-changer for us,” said computer-science professor Ed Lazowska.

The move will boost the UW’s prominence in U.S. computer-science education, serve to recognize the growing importance of computer science within the university, and give the school increased autonomy and flexibility within the UW system, Lazowska said.

In a phone interview Thursday, Allen said the money would give the university “more resources, and scope, and ability to grow and keep up its climb to the top ranks of computer science” among the nation’s universities.

He believes we are entering a “new golden age” of computing. Developments in machine learning, artificial intelligence and modeling of biological systems are all coming together, he said, and the use of computer-science approaches in thinking and methods “can be applied across an amazing variety of different areas of research” — including self-driving cars and climate modeling, to give two examples.

“Computers are more involved now, with everything being done to engineer and produce things,” he said. That makes it a great time, he said, to increase the number of students getting a computer-science education.

Having his name on the computer-science school at the UW, Allen said, had particular emotional resonance for him because of his connection to the university.

Although he never attended the UW, as a high-school student he and fellow Lakeside School student Bill Gates sneaked into the university’s computer-science rooms to learn more about how computers worked, and to create what Allen said was the first microprocessor-based computer built in Seattle — a machine called the Traf-O-Data, designed to measure traffic flow around urban areas.

“That’s what we really used to learn about microprocessors,” he said. “Those were the days when this stuff was just in the beginning stages.”

UW President Ana Mari Cauce said the donation “is tremendous generosity — but also, his name carries weight” in the computer-science world. Having the school named after Allen will be a point of pride for faculty and students alike, she said.

“It’s a department that’s been doing really well, but this will take it to a whole different level,” she said.

The announcement about the Allen and Microsoft donations and the new school is being made in concert with the 50th anniversary of computer science at the UW. In March 1967, the UW regents governing board gave approval to the formation of a computer-science group.

The money will provide the school with $2 million a year in seed funding for new initiatives, which could be used for a variety of things — including funding of early stage research, developing new experimental-education initiatives, providing equipment that can’t be purchased through other means, or funding fellowships or scholarships to recruit outstanding students.

“It will make us able to be really agile, to be able to pursue new directions,” Lazowska said

As an example, Lazowska — who holds the Bill & Melinda Gates chair in computer science — said his endowed chair gives him about $80,000 a year to use for what he called “venture funding” for early stage research ideas. Those “crazy ideas,” as Lazowska described them, can turn into projects that move computer science in novel directions and enable the UW to win federal grant funding.

The money could also be used to help attract top faculty, Lazowska said. The costliest part of attracting new faculty is usually the expense of setting up a lab where they can work. Modern computer labs these days can involve such things as robotics, or power harvesting, and can cost more than half a million dollars, he said.

The Allen name is already on two buildings at the UW — the Allen Library, named after Kenneth Allen, Paul Allen’s father, who was the associate director of libraries from 1960 to 1982, and the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, where computer-science offices and labs are located. Kenneth Allen died in 1983.

At Washington State University — where Paul Allen was enrolled for two years but never received a degree — the Allen School for Global Health Science is named after him. Allen donated $26 million toward the founding of that school.

The UW is constructing a new computer-science building across the street from the Allen Center, to expand the school. Competition to get in is so stiff that only about a third of undergraduate students who apply are accepted. Much of the construction funding has been raised privately, and Allen’s donation won’t be used for that.

The UW is also asking the state to include more money in its next budget to hire faculty and increase the size of the computer-science school, so it can accommodate more students.

Allen said he’s focused much of his philanthropy on Seattle, in large part because of his mother, Faye, who often talked about the importance of giving back to the community. Faye Allen died in 2012.

“I’ve tried to single out those opportunities, tried to invest in the community in ways that would make it richer and better,” he said. “It’s something I’ll continue to do in the future.”

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